Establishing Support Networks with a Coherent Student Success Strategy

The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) consistently ranks among the top 1% of the world’s universities. With 24 campuses and over 17,000 faculty and staff, the University’s sheer scale is striking. A land-grant, public institution focused on teaching, research, and service, Penn State offers undergraduate, graduate, professional, continuing, and extension education through residential and online delivery.

A Widespread Institution with Outdated Software

With an enrollment of nearly 100,000 students, Penn State turned to Starfish in 2016 to integrate people, processes, and technology. The University’s leadership believed this partnership would align with the One Penn State strategic plan, which envisions a more integrated, flexible, and responsive institution.

As the University began deactivating an outdated, homegrown student-information system, campus leaders were searching for an enterprise-wide solution to support early alert and case management. This major technological change presented a chance to consolidate advising records into a single system, providing better support for students moving from one campus to another within Penn State. “Our provost was very adamant that we move to a single system for advising notes and progress reports, and that every unit would be expected to use it,” said Dr. Janet Schulenberg, Senior Director, Division of Undergraduate Studies.

An Ambitious Implementation Schedule

To achieve buy-in, the Starfish implementation team included faculty and academic advisers from across the university who had actively used the previous systems. “This team guided our configuration and rollout and helped to share information about the strengths of Starfish with their units,” said David R. Smith, Associate Dean for Advising and Executive Director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies. “With Starfish’s progress reporting, calendaring, and notes all packaged together, we are better positioned to connect students with instructors and staff across Penn State that work together to help students reach their respective academic goals. The fact that Starfish was so user-friendly and intuitive made our initial implementation that much better.”

Starfish implementation began in January 2016. A strict deadline was set for August 2016, when the legacy system would be deactivated. In May, an initial Starfish release established advising rosters, a single notes system for the University, and academic summary functions for use during New Student Orientation.

Adding Analytics to Improve Student Success Insights

Since implementation, the University has offered students a seamless experience. In 2018, the University expanded Starfish usage by purchasing the platform’s Strategic Analytics capability. This function helps pinpoint actions that have the greatest impact on retention and other student success goals, compare performance over time and with other campuses and schools, and identify areas for improvement.

Smith believes the payoffs have far exceeded Penn State’s initial goals. “With our immediate needs driving the decision, we had a limited view of everything Starfish could actually do. Once we began our implementation, we uncovered its broader potential to build networks to better support our students and to shape a culture of student success at Penn State.”

Starfish Impact

Starfish has been a catalyst to several significant improvements at Penn State. A University Faculty Senate policy was changed to include all undergraduates in progress reporting, driving a transformation in the culture of student support. Faculty realize that taking action when a student is struggling can lead to stronger connections and more meaningful interventions. During each of their two progress reporting periods in Fall 2019, 74% of the total student body received feedback from instructors.

Since Penn State launched Starfish, student engagement has increased. In Fall 2019, 146,575 meetings with 46,946 unique students were recorded by 1,299 providers. Penn State Learning reported a 60% increase in student contacts.

As further evidence of the Starfish program’s deep impact, President Eric J. Barron’s September address to the Board of Trustees featured the platform as one of the University’s targeted solutions to the student debt crisis. He referred to Starfish as “a monumental shift in our capability to be able to help students.”

2020 Education Advances Award (EAA) Winner for Student Success and Advising

Each year, Hobsons recognizes academic institutions that help all students realize their full potential. As the 2020 EAA winner for Student Success and Advising, Penn State was recognized for its commitment to connect conversations and drive meaningful interventions on all its campuses. From the Office of the President to the general student body, Penn State demonstrates a sustained commitment to initiatives that promote student success. A contributing member of the American Talent Initiative and the APLU Powered by Publics Initiative, Penn State is asserting leadership in confronting issues of access, completion, and student debt. At a recent University Faculty Senate meeting, President Barron announced the formation of a University taskforce dedicated to addressing student food and housing insecurity. Starfish is helping to identify student needs at Penn State, making them visible and actionable.

As David R. Smith has indicated, “the ability to bring not only a technology solution but also consulting services that have helped to reshape the culture of student success at Penn State have been central to our ongoing efforts to help more students reach the finish line.”

“With Starfish’s progress reporting, calendaring, and notes all packaged together, we are better positioned to connect students with instructors and staff across Penn State that work together to help students reach their respective academic goals.”